Administrative History
NPS Logo


floor plan of caves
Floor plan of the caves sheltering the Gila cliff dwellings.
(click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

Summary: Significance of Cultural Resources

When Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument was established in 1907 to protect the prehistoric architecture known at the time as the Gila Hot Springs Cliff-Houses, there had been little investigation of the local archeology. Furthermore, the general taxonomies of culture were still inadequate for the distinctiveness of these prehistoric remains to be recognized.

Since that time the Mogollon culture has been accepted as a distinct and important prehistoric culture that was endemic to southwestern New Mexico, southeastern Arizona, and adjacent areas of northern Mexico and western Texas. Near the center of this culture area lie the headwaters of the Gila River and Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. Since 1955, these headwaters have been recognized as an area of special archeological wealth, with more than 103 prehistoric sites identified within several miles of the West Fork-Middle Fork confluence. In 1962, the original 160-acre monument was nearly tripled in size and is now known to incorporate 45 of these sites, including the TJ Ruin, a open pueblo that contains perhaps 200 rooms.

In the system of national parks, Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument is the only unit that contains Mogollon sites. The known prehistoric sites on the monument range from Archaic rock shelters through Early and Late Pit House and Classic Pueblo periods to an Apache [1] grave—a complete 2,000-year sequence of local cultural development, ranging from semi-permanent habitations to large villages with multiple spheres of influence and then to abandonment and later reoccupation of the area by nomads. The archeological resources of the monument may help scientists to trace and understand regional evolutions in subsistence strategies, settlement patterns, social organization, trade networks, and demography.

Although in the center of the Mogollon area, the monument lies on the periphery of the Mimbres branch, a subset of the larger culture that was centered in the Mimbres Valley and that is famous for its painted pottery. At the headwaters of the Gila, Mimbres populations adjoined another more northern branch of the culture. The TJ Ruin, for example, is a Classic Mimbres phase pueblo; the cliff dwellings are Tularosa phase, the product of a prehistoric population that more commonly built near the present town of Reserve. Consequently, Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument contains archeological resources that may also help to clarify the relationships between the various cultural branches and to understand the origins and dispersal of cultural innovations.

Finally, with the exception of the cliff dwellings, which had been more or less rifled before the turn of the century, the monument preserves sites that are nearly unique in southwestern New Mexico for their relatively undisturbed nature. An old and increasingly lucrative market in Mimbres pottery has led to the despoliation of 95% of Mimbres sites in the surrounding area. Lamented by professional archeologists since the 1920s, this vandalism continues today, destroying prehistoric architecture and the important context of associated artifacts. In other words, Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument preserves an archeological resource that is vanishing rapidly elsewhere.

<<< Previous <<< Contents >>> Next >>>

Last Updated: 23-Apr-2001